The Secrets of Low-Tech Plumbing

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Take control of your water supply and wet-waste disposal systems the old-fashioned ways.
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Basic components of a river box, used to tap rivers, streams and lakes.
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The cistern water cycle.
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At start, poppet is open and one-way valve is closed. Water flows down inlet pipe and up through poppet-valve overflow.
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Poppet closes, containing the full momentum of the falling water column inside the pump. The ""Ram Effect"" forces the one-way valve to open. Water gushes past it, compressing air in pressure valve.
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One-way closes trapping the water just rammed past it. Compressed air on vessel expands, forcing a small amount of water up-hill. Poppet opens and process begins a new.
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Performance of a water ram.
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Anchoring a river or stream water intake.

Most of us move to the country in search of a simpler life
that’s closer to nature, less wasteful, and more
self-reliant. We happily trade smog for clean country air,
city conveniences for rural independence, TV dinners and
jogging for home-baked bread and the honest sweat of
gardening. An adventurous few go “off the grid” to supply
their own electricity with solar panels, a wind generator,
or mini-hydro. But only true modern pioneers choose to
relinquish that central feature of modern living: unlimited
running water and a flush-and-forget waste disposal system.

Which is a shame.

Much of the continent goes unpopulated because the soil
won’t “perk” sufficiently to absorb effluent from a
1,000-gallon septic system that’s Building Code-approved to
handle a modern household–or the land is too rocky or
too remote for a well driller’s rig. As a result, too many
good folks are forced to abandon their country-living dream
because money is so hard to put by in the consumerist rat
race of urban life-including the $10,000 to $20,000 or more
needed to install a city-style water system in the country.

The greatest shame of all is that modern households don’t
really use the 30 to 100 gallons/person/day of water they
consume. They pollute it–not out of necessity, but
for mere convenience. Water is less the essence of life
than a medium for wet-waste disposal.

An individual only needs a half gallon to a gallon of water
a day to drink, cook, and wash up with. Laundry and bathing
demands more, but not 40 gallons per drawn bath or
automatic washer load. That monument to Victorian denial,
the flush toilet, takes five to eight gallons per use to
dispose of an ounce or two of waste per person per day, dry
weight. Of the five gallons a minute little kids waste
brushing their teeth (they always leave the tap on full,
right?), only a brush-wetting and one mouth-rinse–a
four-ounce paper cupful–is needed. Automatic clothes
washers use 30 to 50 gallons a load to do what our
great-grandmothers accomplished in a gallon or two of water
with a washtub, a bar of lye soap, a washboard, and elbow
grease, or with a little more water and a wringer/washer.
Showers waste 12 gallons (eight to 10 with a water-miser
shower head); by contrast, when I was a Marine we were
rationed a count of five to wet down and soap up, and a
count of 10 to rinse off-using perhaps a gallon of water in
all. In the field, we brushed our teeth from a canteen and
bathed, shaved, and washed our socks in a helmet half-full
of water.

I don’t suggest that we live on a wartime basis (my buddies
and I didn’t much like it at the time) or that we go back
to the washboard. But mini-flush toilets, low-flow shower
heads, sewage-treatment plants, and our other feeble
attempts at water conservation not-withstanding, plumbing
systems are predicated on an unlimited supply of pure water
and an environment with an unlimited capacity to absorb
sewage. I’ll not belabor the world’s growing water
shortages and waste-disposal problems but to suggest that
diverting a small river through every home to remove a
smitter of waste indentures our water supply to an
exaggerated fastidiousness. There is no reason but
convenience to combine water-supply and waste-disposal
systems. They should be separated in concept and practice,
and water use reduced to a trickle with low-flow/low-tech
plumbing. Water is to sustain life …and to sail your boat
over and to grow lovely tomatoes and to listen to as it
flows over the rocks–not to insult.

Low-Tech Water Systems Aren’t for Everyone

Hand-made low-flow, low-tech water systems aren’t for
everyone-not yet. They require rigorous conservation,
replacing porcelain bathroom fixtures with privies and
washtubs, and automated kitchen appliances with hand pumps
and dishpans. These devices require time, attention, and
labor-an inconvenience that some solid burghers I know
disdain as pointlessly out of date, contemptuous of
civility and good taste, and proof of a general societal
decline into savagery and depravity. Savage it may be, but
I prefer my spring water to what comes from the faucets in
most cities, and would rather work up a sweat mucking out a
spring or digging a cistern than riding around in a golf
cart or straining at an Ab-Isolator.

Lo-tech water systems are probably best for a solitary bear
like myself, for a young couple experimenting with life
before mortgage payments and diapers take over, or for
independent souls or vigorous retirees who don’t have to
appear freshly showered and well-creased, crisply shaved,
or coiffed at some in-town office every morning. I can’t
see slogging to the outhouse through a yard of new snow
wearing a Brooks Brothers suit. With time, the tough-minded
ideas and gentle technologies we low-flow advocates are
working to perfect will have their splintery seats and
rustic lines smoothed, and will be interpreted in molded
plastic to satisfy the pampered bottoms of urban

Lo-Flow Water = Low Low Land Price

A willingness to go lo-tech/lo-flow can manifest itself
immediately in money saved on land. The well drillers have
chased me off my mountain, and I’ve just located a place in
downcast Maine where I can build a cabin and moor a boat
without winning the lottery to pay for it. The price of
seacoast is out-of-sight if it comes with a well-plumbed
house or features “drilled well and septic.” It is just
slightly less if “perked, septic approved, electricity at
road:” But if the land is solid granite, if saltwater has
invaded the freshwater aquifer, or soil is too thin to
absorb septic leachate, it’s unsuitable for a conventional
dwelling. The initial asking price may not reflect the
impracticality or prohibitive cost of water service, but
you can dicker it down. Then you can discount the cost of
building an all-season road and electric lines. You get the
idea. Taxes on unplumbed land are low too; replace the
outhouse with a flusher and up they go. Look hard and
bargain harder and a predilection for a lo-tech water
system can get you dry (but otherwise prime) land cheap. And
there’s enough water most anywhere if you know how to get

Locating Water

All of North America (but genuine desert) receives 10 or
more inches of rain-fall per year. If 80 percent is
captured, each 10 inches of rain falling on a square foot
of land produces five gallons of water a year
Theoretically, in even the semi-arid Western mountains and
plains, the run from the roof of a 18′ x 24′ cabin would
produce 2,000 gallons/year. That’s gallons per day; enough
for one toilet flush–or enough to supply a small
family living a water-conserving life all they re filly
need plus water to spare for quick Towers and wash day. But
that’s if they reaped every rain shower and if it rained
evenly throughout every year. It doesn’t. The whole year’s
supply can come in a few impressive gulley-washers, and
drought can persist for years.

Not even America’s original low-tech water-system users
could beat the natural water cycles. So please don’t pack
up the van and head off to New Mexico to homestead beside a
blue line on a topo-map. The so-indicated river may not
flow but twice a year–and then in flash floods. Of
course, there may be a permanent river underneath the bed,
but the water is liable to be undrinkable or so deep you
couldn’t reach it. ‘Today, most folks intending to stay
long in the arid parts of the country rely less on faith
than on 150-foot deep-drilled well with solar pumps or

Rainfall accumulates and flows inevitably downhill through
a drainage system that ranges from surface level to 200
feet deep, and that is often invisible to the naked eye.
Lo-tech systems are pretty much restricted to so-called
ground water at the surface in streams and lakes,
flow through permeable strata in the upper soil levels, or
where deep water aquifer, rise to the surface in springs or

To prospect water from your easy chair, you can get
nautical charts for the Great Lakes, major rivers, and sea
coast from marine-supply outlets. Obtain in land
topographical maps and hydrological surveys from any good
outdoor sporting goods store, the local Cooperative
Extension Service, or direct from U.S. Dept. of the
Interior, Geological Survey. The charts and
maps indicate water channels down to small periodic
streams, and the hydro stirveys chart sub-surface channels
and aquifers. Maps don’t tell the whole store, however.
Much surface water is polluted by sewage, or by
agricultural and industrial chemicals. Some aquifers are
near being pumped out, and the water table is dropping
beyond lo-tech accessibility. Parts of the San Joaquin
Valley of California have fallen 25 feet since pumping
“fossil water” from the aquifer beneath had started in the
1920s. That particular day of reckoning is not far off.

In the end, you can supply surface or shallow-well water to
your place in three low-tech ways: 1. Catch it as it falls
as rain; 2. Tap an uphill source and pipe it down by
gravity; 3. Pump it up from a down- hill source.

Rain Catchments

My cabin site is a granite promontory high above a deep
water bay of the Gulf o f Maine. The soil is a yard deep at
most he fore it hits bedrock, and the nearest stream is a
quarter mile away and 100 feet downhill.

For warm-weather water, I have ,I three-part plan. As I did
in an earlier forest cabin, I’ll attach wooden gutters
along, the eaves and pipe the flow to a pair of iron-hooped
wood-slat rain barrels set on the porch. The barrels, with
mosquito-proof tight wooden covers and hand dippers, will be
the first-stage water-supply system. Moss will grow around
the barrel rims and once mosquitoes are gone I can leave
the top ajar in the dryness of late summer. If you can’t
find old-time wooden barrels locally, hardware or home
supply outlets sell them in several sizes–charred or
plain, used or new. Use clean, recycled steel drums or
plastic barrels (from any farm supply store) if you must,
but the water won’t taste the same.

Purifying Water

There’s not as much wild water that’s “good enough to
drink” as we used to think. Water flowing directly out of
rock from an uninhabited hillside has a good chance of
being pure. But even pristine mountain streams can contain
natural human pathogens such as Salmonella, and
Giardia–the parasite that causes Beaver Fever, a
dysentery-like disease that is misnamed, since wildlife
carriers got it from humans. Beware human habitation or
farm livestock upstream or uphill of any water source. But
even if you move to Georgian Bay or a Rocky Mountain
fastness, have your water tested before you use it raw.
States and provinces all offer water tests free or for a
nominal fee. The local health board or any well driller or
water softener will know where to go and how to take
samples. Tests are usually done for E. coli, the bacterium
that is normal in human stool. Request tests for everything
else the lab can do-heavy metals, pesticides if in a farm
area, worms, and other nasties.

Till you get a clean report–and for good if you
don’t–you can boil water, use chlorine pills, get a
chlorinator or iodine infuser, or use a water filter. A
backpacker’s filter will do for small quantities. The
Boundary Waters Catalog carries a good
variety costing from $30 to $150. For long-term use, solar
stills or reverse-osmosis filters mentioned above are most
effective, but cost from several hundred to several
thousand dollars. One good source for reasonably priced
stills is Crystal Clear.

You might consider importing water. Look in the old-car
magazines for a surplus military or industrial water
trailer–a “camel”–and fill it in town for a few
bucks. A low-flow household using only a few gallons a day
can fill their needs with plastic jugs of spring water from
the grocery for $1.00 a day, and much less if bought in

Hand-built water systems are never finished, of course,
which is part of the fun. Another idea my son Sam and I are
working on is to make our own camel from a 1,200 lb. GVW
dual snowmobile/dirt bike trailer. It will hold three full
55-gallon steel drums. I’ll equip it with a long siphon
hose or a little gas-powered transfer pump and get wild
water from a tested spring. Let’s see, Harley doesn’t drink
much and 150 gallons will supply our low-tee/lo-flow
requirements for four or five months …more like a month
or two when we have visitors. I could build an insulated
shed on the cabin big enough to hold several drums over
winter …and rig a solar fan to blow wood heat in to keep
the water from freezing. Over the centuries many have
solved the purification problem by drinking only hot-brewed
coffee and fermented spirits. I tried that myself, but
eventually found it counterproductive to the clean living
and clear-thinking rationale that brought me to the country
in the first place, and can’t recommend it.

After a summer on the place, I’ll know how much rain to
expect and how much I’ll use and will go to the second
stage: setting reconditioned 30-gallon steel drums up on
the rafters for a gravity water system. One will be rigged
to a hot water exchanger (for $200 ready-made, or homemade
from scrap copper tubing) that heats via natural convective
circulation. If the south side of the cabin gets a good
eight hours of sunlight, I’ll set a black-painted 30-gallon
steel-drum hot water tank outside on a high stand outside
the bathroom (perhaps mated with the exchanger in the wood
stove) for the often necessary luxury of warm showers. Like
all homemade low-tech water heaters, it will take a lot of
soldering, valving, and experimentation.

The final step will be to hire a backhoe to dig a
500-gallon cistern under the house’s kitchen/bathroom
plumbing tier to supply a good four-month lo-flow winter
water supply. The eaves will empty into it, and a manual
valving system will direct water to the cistern, a
roof-cleaning bypass/ overflow. An insulated (perhaps
heat-tape warmed) pipe will run from the cistern to a hand
pump at the kitchen sink (see page 34) or I could use a
small 12VDC solar-electric pump to fill gravity tanks in the
roof. I may have to blast to dig the cistern and may have
to line it with stout plastic sheeting for water tightness.
We’ll see. downcast Maine receives 50 inches of rain per
year-about 1,000 gal/month from a 400-square-foot roof, so
there’s no concern about going dry.

Go Tap a Spring

Water flows under most of the continent through gravel and
sand layers (strata) deposited eons ago, often capped top
and bottom by impermeable clay strata sometimes flowing for
hundreds of miles from 50 to 200 feet down. It springs to
light in dips or where water-bearing strata or fissures in
the rocks just naturally break the surface. Look for green
spots in the woods or for willow lines on the plains.
Follow gulleys that betray faults or underground streams.
Track deer downhill from their night beds on the ridge tops
to where they water every morning in the draws.

Ideally, you will find a piece of land that slopes up
behind the house to a flowing spring. You can just dip one
end of a hose in a little pool, run it to the house, put a
spigot on the end, fill the tube from the top, and siphon
water down. If the spring flows strong enough, install a
pipe and let it run full-time. Best is to locate a dip that
has filled up with black muck over the centuries and dig it
out (dam the flow uphill and divert it temporarily if need
be). You can sink rocks or concrete blocks to anchor a
screened foot valve in the bottom. The valve will keep
trash out and guarantee one-way-only flow, but the hole
fills in quickly. Longer-lasting is a yard-square covered
spring box–a crib of stout poles, or a caisson of
wood planks (that will last for years if kept saturated),
rock, or poured concrete. Run a pipe out the side and down
to the house. Cover the box well to keep leaves and other
woodsy trash out.

Mucking out a spring is the only work I enjoy more than
building stone walls. The muck stinks; it’s full of bugs
and slimy rocks and buried limbs that spring up,
splattering you with black goop. But when it’s done and the
swirls of mud gradually clear, you’ve presented the forest
with a new pool of clean, clear water never sampled by man
or beast. I like to make small waterfalls at the top and
bottom just to hear the sound.

Tapping Lakes, Streams, and Rivers

The main problem I’ve incurred in tapping natural water
bodies is keeping the inlet pipe stable against wave action
and changing currents, free of silt and waterborne trash,
and firmly sunk below changing water levels. The best
solution I know is to make an inlet box to hold a foot
valve or strainer. Often a single concrete block will do.
You may have to get so elaborate as to dig a pit in the
bottom and half submerge a wooden box and hold it in place
by filling with river stones. Fashioning the
inlet from plastic plumbing pipe fixtures to make a “T” or
a rigid crook with the opening facing away from prevailing
current often helps to give it purchase, remain above
bottom silt, and reject floating leaves and trash. Rigid PVC pipe used to fabricate drains and junctions
comes in a variety of shapes and can be welded easily with
solvent. In some situations, a floating inlet is best-with
the tubing suspended from a plastic-foam float anchored to
the bottom.

If water is silty or choked with weeds or algae-sometimes,
even if it is stagnant and foul-you can employ an old
woodsman’s trick and dig a sump beside it, about a foot
away in sandy soil, half that in denser soil. Water will
filter through, cleaning itself as it fills the sump to the
level of the water body. The sump can be quite deep, so
long as the dike separating sump from pond or stream holds.
Sapling poles and stakes or steel mesh and re-bar used for
reinforcing concrete can be hammered or laid around the
sides to strengthen the sump. A cover is necessary to keep
out trash. I have used a plastic tarp held up with poles,
margins weighted with stones and the sheet punched through
several places to allow rainwater to seep through. For a
permanent sump cover, build a wood, poured-concrete, or
concrete-block frame around the top and fashion a hinged or
removable wooden top as when making a spring box.

If your water source is below the house, you’ll want to
pump the water up. If you’re lucky enough to live beside a
stream in hill country, and the waterway drops two to 50
feet over a relatively short distance, you can use a water
ram. This elegantly simple device uses gravity expressed in
the momentum of a falling water column to pump water
uphill. A relatively small amount of water from a flowing
stream is diverted into a catch basin, then to a pipe and
downhill. In the ram, its momentum is captured between a
pair of opposite-working valves with a closed-top pressure
vessel (metal bulb or plastic tube) between them.
Momentum-forced water enters the vessel, compressing the
air, the inlet-side valve closes, trapping energized water,
compressed air in the vessel expands, forcing a jet of
water past the outlet-side valve which closes when the
water spurts past and recoils back against it. But most of
the energized water is trapped ahead of the valve, so up
goes your water supply in successive spurts.

The secret to a water ram is the amount of “head” the
stream offers, a term refer ring to the difference in depth
of a liquid at two given points and to the higher pressure
at the lower point.

Since it plummets straight down for 167 feet., Niagara
Falls develops 167 feet of head over a negligible amount of
forward progress. With its one-foot-per-mile fall rate, the
Mississippi needs 167 miles to develop the same head.

The inlet can be as little as two feet higher than the
outlet, but the more head, the more water can be moved. The
best way to get enough head to lift water a meaningful
height (the “rise”) over a reasonable overland distance is
to pick a site with a vigorous mountain stream running just
downhill from your place.

Hand-Drilled Wells

I’ve never dug a real well, and don’t suggest your doing
it. But if you are restoring an old farmstead, do scout
around for the old wells. One for the house and another for
the barn are bound to be there someplace-hidden under a
flat rock in the yard, on the machine-shed side of the barn
away from the stock pens, or under the porch. Many were
filled, broken in, or capped with concrete for
cat/dog/little kid safety’s sake after a deep well was
drilled, but they’ll still produce water in sufficient
quantity for a lo-flow system. Many homes from the 1800s
were built over springs, so it might be worth your while to
listen for a faint burble underneath the floor boards. If
it’s there, you’ll hear it, even under a concrete floor. If
you strike it rich, sink a pipe and attach a hand pump.

As with nearly all ground water, old wells need testing.
And expect the water level to fluctuate with the seasons.
My kids were whelped on a cellar well that got low enough
one fall to force a reluctant shift from cloth diapers to
disposable for a few weeks. (I’m told that modern-day
disposable are less of a burden on the environment than the
combined water use and detergent contamination from
laundering cloth diapers. My youngest is in college,
however, and I have no present inclination to test the
theory by going back into the diaper business.

Don’t expect to bring up water by hammering down one of the
those strainer ended hollow-pipe well points you see in
catalogs unless neighbors’s wells or a hydrologic survey
confirms presence of a clean, shallow aquifer that remains
fully charged year-round. Only if the free water level is
no more than 20 feet below the surface, and the ground is
rock-free and easily penetrable down to water, can a
hand-sunk point get to it. Sandy soils near large
fresh-water bodies are best, and the nearer lake level the
well mouth the better; hand pumping from much more than 10
feet down takes a lot of muscle.

Those gas-engined post-hole diggers cobbled up with
mini-water-well drills and advertised to bring water up
from “deep-rock” wells …won’t. I’ve seen excited buyers
bouncing the foolish things around, trying to get the auger
to bite. When it did, and jammed hard on the first buried
rock, the powerhead twisted out of their hands and stalled,
sometimes inflicting a modicum of injury in the process.
These rigs have a water inlet under the engine; you are
supposed to hook up a water hose that sends pressurized
water down the pipe drill stem to force up the cuttings. If
there’s water available to drill, why are you drilling? The
drillers supply theirs from a tank truck as big as a
swimming pool.

If soil is sandy and rock-free far enough down for a
several-hundred-dollar gas-powered drill to work, so will a
$50 well point and $20 drilling cap and a few dollars of
plumbing pipe and junctions–hand driven in an
afternoon with a sledge.

The chart above gives output up 100 feet of rise for a
one-inch-ID bronze ram at several head figures. At least
four gallons/minute of flow are needed to operate a
one-inch ram.

Rams come in several sizes and in PC: plumbing pipe as well
as metal. A top-quality one-inch metal ram costs $500. A
build-it-yourself kit of instructions and the only two
moving components for a one-inch plastic ram costs less
than $50, or you can get one ready to pump for under $100.
To the cost of your ram, you must add cost of pipe from the
inlet down to the ram, and back up hill to your home, barn
or stock-watering tank.

You will find details in the catalogs. If you are seriously
interested in the less expensive water rams, you can go to
the source and request a catalog from The Ram Co.. The Cumberland General Store sells metal rams in
its catalog.

More than any device I know, a water ram represents that
rare thing–a perfectly clean, purely beneficial
technology. Rig it to fill overhead tanks for a
gravity-powered pressure system. Then, with woodstove or
sun-heated hot water, and piping your cooking and shower
water out to irrigate the garden, you’ll have a water
system that is environmentally benign.

Another environmentally neutral option–more
“appropriate-tech” than low-tech–is one of the
solar-powered pumps that are replacing windmills at many
stock tanks in the West. Best for sunny climates, although
all solar panels lose efficiency in high heat, they
function 40 percent more efficiently in summer if mounted
on a solar-activated sun-tracker.

Deep-well rigs use a pair of $200 to $300 photo-voltaic
panels and a $500 submergible jet pump to move 100
gallons/hour up a 25-foot head (25 feet straight up or
hundreds of feet of distance). Or, they will move some 50
GPH against a 200-foot head. Plan to spend $1,500 to $2,000
for the panels, mount, battery, pump, and controller. A
solar tracker adds another $500. Piping, foot valves, and
strainers must be chosen to fit the use, and cost extra,
but not a lot. Submersible pumps are designed to go down
inside the casing of a drilled well, but can be adapted for
shallow water sources where the head is great.

For pulling lesser quantities of water up from shallow
wells, cisterns, and lakes, you can power a $50 to $150
multi-piston diaphragm pump with one solar panel on a
simple frame, $15 worth of fittings, and hose as needed.
They can pump three or four gallons a minute up to 60 feet
above the pump, and can pressurize your home water system
to boot. Diaphragms wear out, but are easy to replace.

Getting in low-tech water during the hard winters we have
in snow country is a challenge. Exposed water rams,
intermittent pumps, and pipes will freeze solid, and only
if the above-ground appliances are frost-proofed will a
shallow well or cistern produce all winter. If the source
remains open all winter, you can build a well-insulated
well house over ram or pump and bury supply pipes below the
frost line. With 110 VAC electricity or a high-output
alternative electricity you can install heaters or heat
tapes to keep the system thawed.

Fast-moving water won’t freeze, though, and a constant flow
can be maintained through insulated pipes from below the
surface of a stream or lake. You need an outflow for the
surplus (and for gray water), though, or you’ll have a
glacier built up by April. Best is a flowing spring in the
cellar-which requires foresight in locating your dwelling.


Of course, snow won’t flow off my cabin roof, and I may try
using sea water. Modern passive technology offers two ways
to use sea brine–or any water that is foul, alkaline,
or even polluted. Solar stills ranging in output from a
half-gallon to two gallons/day will evaporate pure water
out from foul or saltwater, but need sun all day, so are
most efficient in the lower latitudes. Prices range from
$350 to $800 for the nearly indestructible, freeze-proof
flat-plate stills. A sun-activated automatic feeder will
add $200 and a special reservoir another $300 to $750.
Along with other off the-grid systems, stocked by Kansas
Wind Power.

Marine desalinators use reverse-osmosis to remove 98
percent of all impurities from one to eight gallons/hour of
salt or contaminated water. They come in manual and 12VDC
power versions at a price of $500 to $1,700. You must spend
the better part of $100 to replace the membrane
periodically. I’d get one for the life raft on my boat
before I take it offshore, and will ask it to do double
duty if my son Sam and I can figure out a way to rig a
water ram to use wave and tide energy to pump salt water up
to the cabin for winter. The fresh water in sea brine
doesn’t freeze to slush or sea ice if kept agitated.

The ram may not cooperate, but Old Dog Harley and I have
melted snow on the wood stove through more winters than
one. We came through with both our coats a bit on the gamy
side, but otherwise in fine shape. I’ll admit, however that
when life falls (or maybe it rises?) to that lo-tech level,
just keeping body and soul together becomes a full-time

The Noble Earth Closet

Properly managed, an outhouse recycles human waste
perfectly, converting it directly into soil nutrients with
no fossil fuel, no water pollution, and a net positive
effect on the environment. An outhouse is even better for
the user’s psyche. It’s humbling when we can’t flush away
the daily reminder that we’re not all that superior to the
family dog, who performs natural functions without the
modesty and inhibition, guilt or shame that we experience.

Health codes in most rural areas of the country fail to
address earth closets, or are tolerant if they do. But
privies are sitting targets for a certain brand of newcomer
from town who feel it a right and duty to raise the
cultural level of the locals. In Vermont, yuppies have
infested the mountains with ski resorts that suck the
aquifers dry to make snow and with condos that refill them
with septic effluent. In Maine, they’ve ringed crystalline
glacial ponds, once sparsely populated by the locals’
privy-equipped fishing shacks, with hip-to-hip upscale
cottages whose hip-to-hip septics emit phosphors that
nourish weeds that turn pristine trout waters into frog
swamps. And durned if Clean-Green do-gooders in both
states aren’t ignoring the problems they’ve brought with
them, and are cooking up legislation to regulate the
privies that are all the plumbing that many older country
folks have ever known and all that back-country poor can

Be sure to check the law before you dig. No, check before
you so much as consider buying a place. Any rural
municipality that sends the privy police around is liable
to zone privies out of town and won’t tolerate
lo-tech/lo-flow water systems or interesting people for

Locate your privy out of sight of snoopers of all
persuasions, well downshed from any open water and from the
source of your own water supply-almost always downhill. To
assay drainage, wait for a good rain to soak in. Dig a
three-foot-deep post hole with sharply cut sides; the upflow
side will seep water most persistently.

Old-time wisdom says to locate an outhouse at least 60 feet
from your water source-100 feet in sandy, fast-percolating
soil. Over that distance, soil microbes will purify any
effluent that escapes the pit. Dig into an old pit
sometime. Inside will be rich compost. Around the perimeter
you’ll see a dark rind of super-rich soil that was once
full of anaerobic microbes that purified the effluent
before it got more than a few inches out into the soil.

Pit and well can be closer if separated by an impermeable
barrier–say, by a bedrock outcropping or a house
foundation. I lived in a place once where the 100-year-old
cesspool and shallow well were only 15 feet
apart–separated by the cellar hole and walls. There
was never a problem.

Build your privy according to whim or from one of the books
available from alternative-lifestyle publishers. Be sure to
make all seams bug-proof and bank spoil from the pit inside
and out, around the sides, and stomp well to keep odors in
and critters out.

Install storm-sash gasketing so the seats are airtight.
Drill vent holes in front panel under the seat at floor
level and cover with fine-mesh screening. Install a
black-painted vent tube (stovepipe or a long wood box)
leading from the back of the seat to a yard above the roof
against a white-painted rear wall facing the sun. It will
evacuate odor by passive convection and aerate the pit for
faster, aerobic, less pungent composting. A wind turbine or
solar fan will vent even more effectively. A little 12VDC
muffin fan and a small solar panel cost about $100 and work
when the sun shines–or with a larger solar panel, a
controller, and a battery, will run full time and supply a
privy light if you want it. A wind turbine used with
commercial non-electric composting toilets costs about 30
bucks and runs when the wind blows. See the solar-goods
catalogs that advertise in MOTHER.

Dig your pit as deep as you can manage, but not down to
standing water. If you can’t get down four feet without
hitting water, dig shallow and rig carrying poles on each
side of the house so two people can move the house several
times a year.

My next privy will be a deluxe model featuring a solar fan
with a large solar panel and battery to power a night-light
and a quick-heating propane-fueled catalytic heater for
four-season comfort. Sears no longer publishes their
catalog so I’ll supply biodegradable toilet paper sold for
chemical toilets. Its more expensive than Charmin, but
decomposes quickly. A bookshelf, battery-powered radio, and
a container of wetwipe disposable hand cleansers completes
the furnishings.

The one aspect of privy management that can’t be automated
or euphemized away is stirring. Hinge the seat and keep a
large stick down in the hole where you can reach the good
end. Whenever you can muster the strength, stir and spread
the contents. Remember, humility is a virtue.

In most soils, a 3′ x 3′ x 5′ deep pit should serve a small
household for a year without problem. Many seasonal or
limited use outhouses have served from the same location for
decades. But, if the pit threatens to fill or become
unpleasant from heavy use, dig another one uphill and to
one side and move the house. Fill in the old pit and plant
a lilac bush over the spot. Late fall is the best time so
you’ll have plenty of pit space for winter.

For best composting, keep a coffee can and a large
container of dry soil, peat moss, pine needles or other
organic material by the seat and instruct all users to drop
in a half-container full with each use. If space to
relocate the privy is limited, or you experience brief
heavy usage from visitors, you can scatter quick-lime or
caustic soda in the pit every day. It will keep odors down
and speed disintegration.

To minimize insect problems, be sure to screen all
openings, fashion a good tight door with a closing spring,
and keep the toilet lid down and bug-tight. And don’t throw
garden refuse or kitchen garbage into the pit. You don’t
want to introduce eggs that will encourage fruit flies.

Of course, you’ll not want to run to the outhouse at all
hours. Get some old-time chamber pots–ample crocks
cast from easily cleaned gloss-glazed porcelain. With or
without a bit of rose water in the bottom and covered
discreetly with a towel, they are a perfectly civilized
alternative to a midnight stroll to the facilities.

Waterless Indoor Plumbing

Composting toilets are indoor versions of the earth closet,
but are carefully designed to turn human waste, kitchen
scraps and peat moss into bug- and egg-killing,
human-pathogen disinfecting, hot-process compost. They come
with or without electric heat and vent fans to improve
both capacity and process, and incorporate internal
agitating mechanisms to keep true aerobic compost cooking.
Silent, sanitary, aesthetic, waterless, and fully Code
Acceptable in a growing number of rural municipalities,
they cost about $1,000. You’ll agree they’re worth it the
first time you don’t have to mush to the outhouse in a cold
rain. The best are made in Canada. See the catalogs and ads

Composting toilets, DC batteries for a solar array, and the
water supply need to be kept warm in winter. When I get up
the money to luxuriate in off-the-grid decadence and
luxury, I will buy a propane-powered refrigerator and
on-demand water heater and install them in the kitchen
counter that backs against the bathroom wall. Their warm
exhaust will do double duty, venting through finned stove
pipe run through a Code-acceptable sealed battery locker,
into and through the toilet space, and between
gravity-water tanks packed in insulation up in the ceiling.


Small amounts of cooking and wash
water–“graywater”–can just be tossed on the
lawn or garden. If the outflow becomes noticeable, it’s
both unaesthetic and illegal in most places, so it should
be run into a sump or dry well, a leach pit, or set of each
lines. A sump for a single-sink outflow need be nothing but
a hole in the ground with a flat rock over it and the drain
hose leading in. A dry well is larger, to accept water from
a shower and sink. One version is a yard-deep hole lined
with a planks set on end and half-filled with gravel or
crushed rock and the end of the drain pipe sunk halfway
down. A proper leach pit can be as large as needed to serve
laundry, sinks, shower or bathtub. Build a yard-wide
cylinder of concrete blocks with a foot of gravel at the
bottom and six inches all around; lay the drain line
underground and cover the pit with planks. Or, cover with a
concrete cistern cap and cover that with sod and never
worry about it unless it overflows – which means it needs to
be dug out or moved.

Maybe it’s the Red Indian in me, but I find more than fluid
nourishment in a hand built water system …living life not
as a consumer but as an active participant in the
sun-powered water cycle.

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